‘Ain’t Too Proud’ has become a Broadway sensation, earning 12 Tony nominations! Director Des McAnuff talks about bringing The Temptations music to the stage.
Jukebox musicals have continued to be long-running hits on the Broadway stage, as seen with Jersey Boys and Summer: The Donna Summers Show. Tony Award-winning director Des McAnuff directed both of those hits, and several others, and now has left his triumphant mark on the Imperial Theater with Ain’t Too Proud, nabbing another Tony nomination for his direction. After being approached by the show’s producers Tom Halls and Ira Pendleton to meet with the last living original Temptations member Otis Williams, Des was asked to tell the story of the rise and fall of the original Temptations. “Otis was very open, he was very courageous, and it was clear that he wanted to tell the true story,” the Tony nominated director said in an EXCLUSIVE interview with HollywoodLife.com. “We wanted to be sure that we were telling the truth and that we weren’t going to be shy about the sacrifices that those individuals went through to create this institution called The Temptations.”
Starring Tony nominated Derrick Baskin as Otis, Jawan M. Jackson as Melvin Franklin, Tony nominated Jeremy Pope as Eddie Kendricks, James Harkness as Paul Williams and Tony nominated Ephraim Sykes as David Ruffin, the five incredible talents who play the original Temptations will quite literally blow you away with their dancing, sound and overall stage presence. “This is the score of our lifetime. This is music you hear everywhere. Their contribution — and Mo Town in general — but specifically The Temptations, to American music, is so profound,” Des continued. “They influenced all of the music that’s going on this very day, and people should go to the show because it’s like going home. It’s going back to a place where we all live, and where we can gather together. I don’t think it’s about necessarily just the sixties and seventies. It takes place everywhere.”
HollywoodLife: You’re so established in direction, how do you choose what shows you’re going to work on these days?
Des McAnuff: I actually have a really profoundly confused career, and I think that’s due to the fact that I like to go on to the next planet. One of the things that’s wonderful about working in the theater in general and being a director is that it’s a fool’s paradise. You can dive into a new genre, or a new topic, and you don’t necessarily need to know everything about it. As long as you come out the other side with a knowledge, then you’re okay. You have to be curious and empathetic. And so, by and large, I don’t like to explore the same turf.
I think people think that I’ve done a lot of these biographical musicals, and I’ve actually done 27 shows since Jersey Boys, and I’ve only done three biographical musicals in my career. But, happily, they’ve been fairly high-profile. Mostly, I like to switch. I love to do classics. Since that time, I’ve done seven classical plays, six of them by Shakespeare. I like to keep myself kind of off-balance.
HL: Do you feel that with every show you improve as a director? Is there such a thing as ‘improving’ in direction?
DM: I think you mature as a director. When you’re first directing, it’s probably natural to try to prove yourself. You need to learn that directing is really a series of partnerships, and maybe the most important partnership is the one with the performer. I’ve managed to improve in terms of creating a safe environment for actors. I really think it’s very important to have a room where everyone feels comfortable and safe; where everyone feels like they can fail; that they’re willing to take risks, because there’s no consequences if you fall on your face. When I was first directing, I was perhaps less generous, and, again, just more insecure. As I’ve gone on, I’ve tried to become as positive as possible with all of the artists I work with.
There comes a time when you can’t be afraid of this as a director, where you have to push people further than they think they can go. They may not like you at that particular moment, and that’s all right, as well.
HL: Did you go through those type of moments with any of your performers in Ain’t Too Proud?
DM: Oh, I’m sure they all at one time or another have needed or wanted me to nudge them along the pathway. They all go through very emotional periods and scenes in the play, and sometimes it’s important to help an actor just calibrate what emotions to explore, how far to go. There’s also times when an actor, naturally, will misapply what’s needed in the scene, so as a director, you want to help people go there.
HL: What was your approach to telling this story of the Temptations?
DM: Otis Williams was invaluable to Dominique [Morisseau] and I, in terms of telling this story. He was very open, he was very courageous, and it was clear that he wanted to tell the true story. One of the first anecdotes that Otis shared with me the very first time I met him — he described walking into a room and seeing all of his fellow Temptations gathered around a pipe freebasing and asking him to participate, and I realized at that moment that this was a man that wasn’t going to mess around or hold back. I think from the very get-go, because I started working with Dominique right at the start, we wanted to be sure that we were telling the truth and that we weren’t going to be shy about the sacrifices that those individuals went through to create this institution called The Temptations.
We spent many, many hours together, initially just sitting at a table listening to all of the music, every song they ever recorded, with a libretto, which we had prepared for the sessions so we could look at the lyrics. And then, we essentially told each other the story back and forth, and finally, an outline started to take shape. Dominique was then able to go off and write that outline. We had a road map that involved song order, where dialogue was going to go, we spent a lot of time together. I think that’s one of the reasons that people compliment the show by saying it’s seamless. That has to do with the fact that we forged a really meaningful partnership and we put the time in right from the beginning. That first step was really important, and the first step had to do with telling the truth.
HL: How did this partnership with you and Dominique come to be in the first place?
DM: The producers, Ira Pittelman and Tom Hulce, started by approaching me and asking me if I would meet with Otis. I didn’t know an awful lot about The Temptations at that point, so I did my homework and went into that luncheon with some knowledge. At this meeting, he asked me if I would do his musical, if I would tell his story. To be frank, the only writer that we ever discussed for this project was Dominique Morriseau. She’s from Detroit, she had written a pay called Detroit 67. She knows the music scene in Detroit, the culture, she has an ear for the language that’s come out of Detroit, which is an amalgamation of motor city and the South, so it’s a very specific kind of dialect and vocabulary. She was just an obvious choice. That was just obvious.
Then, Otis was terrific because he was a wealth of anecdotes. Their manager was a guy named Shelley Berger, and he was just invaluable, too. He does it in his words — he told us a lot more than we could ever get into the piece. Then, both Otis and Shelley were valuable after the piece was written. When we started rehearsals in Berkeley, both of them addressed the cast and kind of empowered the team. It was important we had their blessing and trust from the beginning.
HL: People have said that Ain’t Too Proud is like a play with Temptations songs. Is that what you were going for?
DM: Most musicals are hybrids. They’re combinations of genres, they involve different layers and different levels. That’s true of virtually all of them. I don’t think it’s a recipe for art, but if you’re creating something and you are storytelling, it’s often important not to be simplistic about the form. It’s okay for a play or a musical or any story to be riddled with paradox and even contradiction. So, I would say Ain’t Too Proud is, on one level, a one-person show — It’s Otis Williams’ story. It’s very much a story from his point of view, so I would say it’s a memory play. He takes us back on a journey to ensure that the sacrifices the group has made have been worthwhile. He uses the imagery of a shepherd going up the mountain to face the Almighty, and when he gets to the top of the mountain, he looks around, and realizes that the flock has scattered and he is alone. He has to ask the Almighty, “Was this worth it? Was it worth it to make this journey?” So that’s a layer.
It’s very much a dance musical. We put a great deal of effort into designing these production numbers as platforms for Sergio Trujillo’s brilliant choreography. The lighting and these delicious scenic moves. There’s an austerity to the production, but it’s also very fast-paced and very intricate. So, it’s definitely a musical biography and a spectacle. I think it involves all kinds of genres. I suppose, lastly, I would call it a history… As storytellers, we want to serve up the stories that audiences want to see. That’s our job. As “hoity-toity” as this might sound, Shakespeare wrote ten histories out of roughly thirty-six plays. So, it’s natural, as storytellers, that we would go to that place.
HL: Did you always envision the now-Tony nominated lead Derrick Baskin in the role of Otis Williams?
DM: Every actor that’s in Ain’t Too Proud went through an audition process and what we do is collaborative. When he walked in and he read this part, I looked at Dominique and I looked at Sergio, and I could tell from what was in their eyes that they agreed that this was the perfect guy for this part. He’s the everyman, there’s something about him that just makes you feel comfortable. He’s a great guide through this story. While there are characters that have perhaps more flash, Derrick as Otis is a guy you’d really love to go out around the corner with and just have a beer.
So, I guess the other thing I should say about Derrick is that you’ll see at the end of the journey, he has to confront the ultimate sacrifice, and along the way, he realizes that he can’t fulfill all of his dreams as an individual by creating The Temptations. There are things that he has to give up. Otis gives up his talents as a songwriter, for example. And the thing about Otis is he very, very, rarely stepped to the front and sang the lead part. When we get to the end of the show, two things happened. We talked about gospel all the way through — how these guys came from the South and they grew up singing in the church, but we never go there, we don’t do gospel until the penultimate song and Derrick is the one that takes us there. It’s this moment of catharsis, and the whole audience is affected by that moment. What you also realize is that Derrick may well be the best singer in the entire show, but he doesn’t step out until that moment at the very end, and it kind of proves the point about sacrifice. You realize at that moment what that guy has given up for that group. He’s given up his solo career to form The Temptations. So, it’s very, very, moving. Derek pulls it off with great aplomb.
HL: Finally, why should people go and see Ain’t Too Proud?
DM: This is the score of our lifetime. This is music you hear everywhere. Their contribution — and Mo Town in general — but specifically The Temptations, to American music, is so profound. They influenced all of the music that’s going on this very day. That particular kind of brand of rhythm and blues and the songs that Smokey Robinson and Normal Whitfield, they just permeate our musical culture. I think people should go to the show because it’s like going home. It’s going back to a place where we all live, and where we can gather together. I don’t think it’s about necessarily just the sixties and seventies. It takes place everywhere. This is about young guys that are almost all in their twenties, they’re incredibly good-looking, like, annoyingly good-looking. I don’t like to be photographed anywhere near them. They’re very much for young people. They’re winning a very culturally rich, young audience.
The themes in this piece have to do with what America is going through once again. The themes have to do with overcoming racism and the themes have to do with people gathering together. When we look out at the audience in the Imperial Theater, it’s extremely moving. As Dominique Morisseau said, it’s like looking at what you want America to be. It’s such an eclectic group of people gathering together and sharing an emotion and a story. And you want to be a part of that. You want to come out. People want to be at The Imperial to see what’s going on there.
You can get tickets to see ‘Aint Too Proud‘ on Broadway, now!